Shooting films in the thriller and suspense genre often calls for unusual locations. Especially on a low budget, you need to be practically fearless when it comes to finding and milking these places. While scary places certainly add to the acceptance of the world the actors need to get into, the filmmaker has to remain cool at all times, no matter what happens.
A great example for this was my shoot for the short film ‘TIED’, a short scene assignment for my Directing Workshop II at UCLA Extension. My dear friend and cinematographer Halyna Hutchins brought my attention to the boiler room of a large apartment building complex in one of the greasier parts of Hollywood, which fit perfectly for the film I had in mind. With the permission of the building manager, we snuck in late at night and set up our gear.
Although the space was very narrow and claustrophobic, we were able to fit in a small Jib Arm ‘crane’ that served us well for moving shots. While setting up, we found an array of remnants of the storage space this room has once been: old books and VHS videos, kid’s toys, old TVs, painting accessories and many more. When we started to clear the space, my eyes fell on an empty terrarium on the floor. But wait, what was that in the corner? The skeleton of an animal, a hamster maybe? This place was starting to creep us out. But we kept going.
What at first seemed to be a small space soon turned into a comfy little set – until my crew saw it. A large RAT running along the cables on the walls. I should have known… The creepy skeleton I saw earlier made sense all of a sudden. I had been so lost in thought about the next shot and angle that I miraculously missed the rat, so I cool-headedly shrugged it off.
We set up the next take for the crane shot when all of a sudden a shrieking noise came from what seemed to be inside the wall. It sent my cinematographer jumping off the table she had been leaning on, almost knocking over her full gear. I only saw the actors’ startled faces and by reflex, caught the camera and Jib Arm next to me, oblivious again to what had happened.
She had thought it was the rat. The admittedly very strange noise, probably the howl of a cat nearby, had startled my cinematographer. It turned out she had an irrational fear of rats, a great thing to have if setting out to shoot in a creepy dark basement in a large city!
The little mischief-maker ended up paying us one more quick visit, and who could blame it. Through its eyes, we could have written Hollywood history. Who knows if the rat had ever seen a film shoot? It definitely became a running gag on our little set and gave me a great opportunity to scare our actors into performances. In retrospect, I am convinced it served as an intense bonding experience for our team, because we always had our backs against the rodent enemy!
Now you can see the result of our little adventure here.